The conversation: Tim Houston

Premier Houston meets with paramedics. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

As he settles into his job, the new premier sees a Nova Scotia with a ton of potential — if he can sort out health care and housing

New premier Tim Houston says he believes that the government should be doing more to improve the lives of Nova Scotians.

Nova Scotia’s first Progressive Conservative premier since 2009 faces the challenge of an overburdened health-care system, an economy still grappling with the pandemic, a housing crisis that has hit a breaking point, and a province struggling to find its identity.

Recently, he talked with Unravel Halifax about public health, health care, policing, an all-party committee to work on COVID-19, post-pandemic recovery, and diversity and inclusion.

Why he wanted to be premier: “There’s only two ways that people get interested in politics: one — they get asked, or two — they get upset about something … My children were starting school, I was in business in Pictou County and that was really the point in my life when I started to kind of look around and say, ‘Who is making these decisions that impact each and every one of us every single day?’ … It really came from my interest in politics, just my own experiences in seeing what was happening in the province around education with young children, around health care. But at that time more than anything, around the economy and just seeing friends and neighbours really struggling to find employment. It was just a natural evolution of seeing what was happening in my community.”

The first 100 days in office: “The things that drive me are access to health care, making sure that people can access the health care that they need — including addictions and mental health, including supporting our seniors. So I’m very focused on access to health care. Ultimately, I think that the success of the province in the longer term will be founded on our ability to address our demographic challenges and make sure that we have more younger people in this province, more population growth … So, those are the overriding goals that I have, and then how we break that down into a year at a time, a month at a time, everything just funnels into those accomplishing those goals, fixing health care, and sizing our demographics, because that’s the way our economy will move forward.”

His response to people worried about skyrocketing rents: “I hear you; I understand the fear. As a government we’re working on it … We’re working diligently to come up with a plan that will work not only in the longer term — I understand the urgency in the short term … There’s many, many Nova Scotians that are wondering: will they be able to stay in the existing housing that they have now? There’s a lot of fear in the province right now. So, a couple things — the rent cap is in place as long as the state of emergency is in place, and there’s no imminent plans for the state of emergency to be removed. We know we’re in the fourth wave right now, so there’s a bit of time to come up with a real solution … I understand the urgency, and we’re focused on finding something that works in the short term and in the long term.”

Health-care challenges: “It’s all about access, making sure that Nova Scotians can access the care that they need when they need it … We met with frontline health care workers all across the province. It was good for me, because it’s really stuff you can’t read in a briefing note, and you have to look somebody in the eye and hear the emotion in their voice about how overwhelmed they are feeling, often short-staffed, can’t take breaks — all those types of things. My main priority, and the main priority of the government, is retention of our health-care professionals, so doing what we can to improve their working conditions so that they don’t leave. … Once you can retain people, then you can recruit. So it’s a human-resource issue … In the short term, you’ll see the government make some policy changes or improvements that will send a message to the health-care professionals that they’re respected.”

People living with chronic illness: “We have a health system that was designed for acute care. If people get really sick in this province, once they get into the system, they’re going to get good care. But the issue is that the world has changed, but the health-care system really hasn’t. We have a lot more chronic conditions now than we had when the health-care system was initially designed, so focusing on chronic conditions has always been something that’s been really important to me. During the campaign, there was a group spearheaded by a couple of mothers of young children, who really brought the focus on the (diabetes) monitoring systems and the fingerprint challenge. I actually participated in the finger prick challenge … It really opened my eyes and, and one of my colleagues that was traveling with me during the campaign is also a type one (diabetic). He’s a young guy and he had a monitoring system, and he said, ‘After you do the finger prick challenge, try my monitoring system for a day.’ It was so night and day … When there’s ways to support people, the government should be working hard to implement those ways.”

The COVID-19 response: “Nova Scotians are pretty proud of our response to COVID since the beginning of the pandemic. The leadership of Dr. Strang and public health has been wise and very effective, and Nova Scotians have respected public health and followed the protocol … It’s been really tough on Nova Scotians, but relative to other jurisdictions we’ve done well so I’m pretty proud of the response of Nova Scotia and I give credit Premier McNeil and to Premier Rankin for having the courage to listen to public health and act on advice with government policy decisions.”

Premier Tim Houston. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

Life after the pandemic: “COVID is not a partisan issue. Right after the election, the first meetings I had with Dr. Strang, I invited the other leaders. I’ll say there wasn’t a lot of uptake on that but, you know, it’s probably time to revisit that. I’m happy to do that, to have an all-party committee … I’m very optimistic about the economy of this province moving forward, and COVID will have ultimately played a big part in that in a positive way, because it brought … a focus and attention to this region. People started to look at the quality of life we have … That’s why I’m so focused on health care, on education, on housing, because if the government does its job — and makes sure that people can access health care, make sure that people can have confidence that their children and grandchildren are going to get a world class education, and that they have access to housing — that really gives the economy lots of runway to grow.” Editor’s Note: Minutes after we posted this interview, the NDP tweeted that the party was “was happy to participate in the meeting we were invited to with public health. We have called for an economic recovery task force that would include MLAs from all three parties for months but haven’t heard anything about this from the Conservatives.”

Diversity and inclusion: “The future success of this province will come from our understanding of our shared past, and being honest about where we can do better … I know that there’s some anxiety right now (in some communities) that they don’t have an ally in our government … I accept the challenge to make sure that I take the steps, that my government takes the steps, to address the concerns that they may have, so we can do a lot in this province together.”

Where he wants to be in five years: “I’m hoping that there’s more people in this province. I want to continue to population growth, but five years from now, I really hope that we have taken the steps and established the right partnerships that people can have a better access to health care, that … people don’t have the level of anxiety about finding a place to live or staying in their house.  Those are the two things definitely today, but everything that government does is designed to improve the quality of life of Nova Scotians and that would be my focus and five years from now, I hope we are the confident province that we have a right to be.”

How he spends his down time:  “Back home in Pictou County, probably outside. I wouldn’t say that I’m really a gardener or landscaper … What’s the expression about being a jack of all trades, but not really that good at any of them? That’s kind of me outside. I’m a Netflix person … When I have a bit of downtime, whatever series is on at that time, I’ll make sure that I get all the way through it, but look, I’m a family person, I’m a rural person at heart so the times when I decompress, I most enjoy them at home.”

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

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